24, 26,27 February: Ember Days

‘To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven’

Pete Seeger 1959

Ember Days, which come round four times a year, have nothing to do with embers. So when my food obsession caused me to stray to visions of juicy steaks on glowing coals, I was immediately hauled back on discovering these are quarterly fast days.

The Romans observed regular fasts, and it may be that Ember Days carry some vestigial memory of their practices. The Old English for Ember Day is ’ymbrendaeg’ and ‘Ember’ comes from the word ‘ymbre’ meaning recurring or around. Three Ember Days occur in Lent, then again after Whitsuntide, in September and in Advent, so they come around once every season and are only observed in the Western Churches.

I’m intrigued by the regularity of Ember Days, there does seem to me to be a hint of the pre-Christian calendar in such a seasonal cycle, and they correspond closely to seed times, harvest and the wine vintage. They were also traditional times for women to pray for children and safe deliveries; giving the hint of a connection between the fruitfulness of women and of the land. Country lore also says that the weather on of each of the three Ember days foretells the weather of the next three months.

The Pete Seeger song quoted above and mostly remembered in The Byrd’s version in 1965 is a direct lift from Ecclesiastes 3.18, a beautiful and poetic passage in the King James Bible about the cycle of the seasons and of life. Ember Days were finally removed from the Catholic Calendar in 1966 not long after The Byrds had their hit. I’m tempted to say ‘the times they were a’changin’. Seeger also recorded ‘Turn Turn’ on his album ‘The Bitter and the Sweet’ which rather matches the recipe below.

Observance of the spring Ember Days required a severely restricted diet and additional prayer on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the first Sunday of Lent. The fasting rules being the mother of invention, there are several versions of Ember Tart, which is an egg and vegetable pie – a sort of Collop Pie ‘maigre’ but with the addition of spices. It’s the spices which lift this pie from the bland to the delectable. The earliest version exists in the mediaeval recipe collection called ‘The Forme of Curye’ compiled about 1390.

'Tart in embre day: take and parboile onynons; presse out the water & hewe hem smale;take brede & bray it in a mortar,and temper it up with ayren; do perto butter, safron, spice and salt and corans & a ltel sugar with powdor douce, and bake it in a trap,& serve it forth.'

Ember Tart

12oz shortcrust pastry
4 leeks finely shredded
1 oz butter
2oz sultanas
4 large eggs
I tbsp crème fraiche
Ground coriander, mace and nutmeg

I made this with my Mum who firstly made 12 oz of shortcrust pastry. She lined an 8” cake tin with the pastry and trimmed the edges very roughly. It was about twice as deep as your average quiche. Whilst she was doing that, I shredded 4 leeks and sweated them in about 1oz of butter until soft but still bright green, then added 2oz of sultanas. I made a custard mix with 4 large eggs, a big tablespoon of crème fraiche and then made it up to ¾ pint of liquid with milk. I added ¼ teaspoon each of mace and ground coriander, then salt and pepper.

We put the leeks and sultanas into the pastry case and sprinkled generously with parsley and a few grinds of fresh nutmeg. Then we put the tart onto a solid tray, put it in the oven and only then poured in the egg mixture and gently closed the door. We baked the tart for 40 minutes at 180c. It turned out of the tin perfectly when it was cool enough to handle. We ate the tart whilst it was lukewarm with new potatoes and salad and there were six generous portions. It was distinctly different from a quiche with a sweet edge and a slightly spiced after taste.

‘A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’

Pete Seeger donated 45% of the royalties of the song to help Palestinian families displaced by Israeli house building. Good for him.

1 comment:

kate said...

really interesting Liz - I have never heard of Ember days but now feel tempted to have the occasionaly fast. I'm sure it leads to headaches but the spring is coming and I have a need to cleanse! Interesting snippet about Pete Seeger too and the Palestinians. Lovely post Kate xx